Virginia Legislature Plans To Debate If Pornography Is A Public Health Hazard

Jan 9, 2017
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There's an old debate about pornography. Is it a moral scourge or just a form of self-expression? One Virginia state lawmaker says porn should be talked about in another way - as a public health hazard. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more from Virginia.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Bob Marshall has served in the Virginia General Assembly for 25 years. And since that time, he says the availability of pornography has changed dramatically.

BOB MARSHALL: If you wanted to get sexually explicit material, you probably had to go to a store, you know, maybe in a not a nice part of town. Maybe it is. And you had to do this kind of surreptitiously. You had to go out and get it.

MCCAMMON: So today, Marshall is worried about the impact on young people growing up with easy access to online porn. He points to the rise of teens sexting, exchanging nude images on their phones.

MARSHALL: When they don't have enough sense that this is a problem, the adults have to step in and say this has gone on way too long for, you know, this to be this ubiquitous.

MCCAMMON: Marshall is a Republican with a history of socially conservative beliefs, including opposition to same-sex marriage. This year, he's also proposed a so-called bathroom bill in Virginia similar to legislation at the center of a debate over transgender rights in neighboring North Carolina.

Marshall's anti-porn bill is getting pushback from the adult film industry and free speech advocates like the ACLU of Virginia. Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga says defining and regulating pornography is tricky.

CLAIRE GUTHRIE GASTANAGA: We're just really skeptical of any proposals that move us down the road of engaging the government in content-based discrimination about speech and literature.

MCCAMMON: Marshall's proposal doesn't include any new restrictions on porn. He says the goal is to start a discussion that could lead to additional regulation in the future. But Gastanaga worries it could threaten free speech. The idea has some precedent. The 2016 GOP platform describes pornography as a public health crisis, and the heavily Republican legislature in Utah passed a similar bill last year.

Support for the idea of porn as a public health issue isn't just coming from social conservatives. Jennifer Johnson is a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who describes herself as a progressive and a feminist. She studies the effect of porn on young people.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: It's having real impact in ways that I don't think we can fully see and fully understand at this moment.

MCCAMMON: Johnson says pornography is better described as a public health concern rather than a hazard. She says more research is needed to understand how porn affects young people's developing brains and their view of sexuality and relationships. She's troubled by research suggesting kids are seeing explicit and sometimes violent images at younger ages.

JOHNSON: Where do they go from there?

MCCAMMON: Johnson also worries about what she describes as misogynistic depictions of women. One Democratic State Senator, Barbara Favola, shares that concern.

BARBARA FAVOLA: No, I mean we don't like pornography. We feel that it, you know, it's very demeaning to women.

MCCAMMON: Favola also questions the free speech implications of the legislature labeling porn a public health hazard. But she says she looks forward to more discussion of the issue after the Virginia General Assembly convenes on Wednesday. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Virginia Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.